We Nodded Because We Understood: On Grief and Melancholy Love
In spite of the fact that I attended a formerly Baptist university for four (and a half) years, I had more than my fair share of fun in college. Some of my most cherished memories involve long nights spent crowded into booths at Pizza Perfect on 21st Avenue with my roommate and old Catholic school buddy, Sam. Sure, we had classes and extracurriculars, but our school week was mainly structured around two-for-one’s on Monday nights that inevitably became four-for-two's and sometimes, if we’d had a particularly rough sociology class beforehand, six-for-three’s.
Living on our own for the first time, off-campus, we finally felt like adults. We’d tell stories and laugh and curse the professors who hated us and idolize the ones who seemed particularly radical and revolutionary. I fell in love in some of those booths, planned engagements, and huddled extra close with my comrades when, on more than one occasion, our respective affections were not reciprocated by pretty girls from class in horn-rimmed glasses. 1602 21st Avenue South was the prevailing landscape of my early adulthood with all its successes and failures, and there was nothing, back then, that couldn’t be fully addressed with a pint and a slice.
In January 2016, a few weeks after I graduated from the aforementioned university, I found myself crawling into one of those familiar booths yet again. This time though, as if the universe had set a deadline on foolishness, there would be no resolution and no laughter or cheers to punctuate another misadventure. I sat across from my dad and brother, and I listened as the next year of my life was outlined with a most poetic and breathtaking clarity.
In the shadow of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where over 20 years ago this man had watched both my brother and I come into the world, my father pointed out the window towards the hospital and said, “You go back there, and you say what you need to say. Then you take care of your mother. You take care of this family. Do you understand me?” My brother and I nodded because we understood.
A few days earlier, I had received a phone call from my mother at six o'clock on a Tuesday morning. I knew immediately that the day I had been dreading for nearly 10 years had finally arrived. I think the phone only rang once, and by the time it touched my ear, my feet were on the floor.
“Things aren’t looking too good here, and I think you need to come down. Now.” My step-father, Pete Huttlinger, had been admitted to Vanderbilt the night before after he began to experience double vision and dizziness. You see, Pete had a congenital heart defect that plagued him throughout his life and rendered transplant impossible. In spite of it all, at 54, he had surpassed his bleak life expectancy by over 20 years. Over the course of his last five years, Pete had overcome a stroke, heart-failure, and the installation of a heart pump which doctors promised would not last forever, but was Pete’s only chance for survival.
During his trials, my mom was beside him every step and stumble of the way. She took care of him and loved him without ceasing. She had found him in 2010 after he had the stroke, so when the double vision began on Monday, she grabbed his cane from the closet, and they headed for the hospital. The doctors were sure that the bleeding in his brain could be mended by morning, so when I asked on Monday night if I should visit, she said no.
On Tuesday morning I rode the elevator up to his room with three men carrying balloons who couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces. They got off on the fourth floor–Labor and Delivery, and by the time I got off on the fifth, Pete had fallen into a coma from which he would never return.
In the days that followed, family members and friends rushed to his bedside. They flew in from California and drove through the night from North Carolina to support my mom and be with Pete. We had seen him pull life out of freefall before, and we weren’t giving up so easily. Doctor after doctor came in and shared opinions. Some were unbelievably smug in the face of our grief, dashing our hopes with soulless facts and figures fresh out of their med school textbooks. Other doctors cried because they knew Pete; they were there when he played his guitar 10 days after his stroke, and when he completed the Music City Half-Marathon in the same year that his heart-failure saw his weight dip below 100 pounds. I think they cried because, like us, they hoped, and like us, they knew that this was unlike anything we’d seen before.
I followed my dad’s advice—I said what I needed to say, and my brother and I went back to the fifth floor and held Pete’s hand and prayed out loud while nurses checked the familiar bags and tubes that so often accompany death these days. My mom stood in the corner of the room like a boxer in the 12th round. She had been Pete’s advocate and champion for years, saving his life more than once, but this time a shadow of helplessness was cast over her.
For the first time, I heard her utter what would become her chilling mantra of dread, “I’m going to be alone. I’m going to be alone. I’m going to be alone.” Her refrain always punctuated by tears.
On Friday at 12:30 pm we stood around Pete’s bedside once again and were with him as he passed away. In those moments, fear racked my bones, but I have never felt more animated by love. One of the great gifts of this melancholy love was that it provided clarity when things fell apart, and it laid bare priorities like nothing else could. My mom, brother, and I packed up our things and left the room, our eyes cast downward, weighted to the ground by tears. We rode the elevator down to the cold, January parking garage where her car had been sitting since Monday night. When my mom got into the passenger’s seat, Pete’s cane was still there—waiting for her. I got behind the wheel, and drove us home.
That was almost one year ago, and I haven’t left since.
When I graduated from college I had two majors, a corporate job lined up, and an apartment that looked like a Pinterest board come to life. I felt good about the future and couldn’t wait to meet the woman I was about to become—“I’ll bet she wears turtlenecks!” I would think to myself, “She’ll be cute and boyish, but everyone will know she’s powerful because her job takes her to Europe.”
My sights were set on success and recognition. Especially in this world of social media, money and beauty and power seem to be the only things of consequence. What matters is what we project, how much we win, and how deep and serious we appear while remaining snarky enough to keep interlopers excluded.
Now I live back at home with a woman deemed a “widow” by society, but who is more interested in living out her title as a wife. I quit the corporate job after a few months because money lost its taste, and I simply couldn’t keep pace with the waking world. Freelance writing now helps me inch past the finish line every month with student loans, and I decided to finally make the record I’d been writing for years. Mom and I cried every night for a while, and we still cry, especially on Sunday afternoons as the sun sets. We went on a road trip across country through all of the places she and Pete loved, and we celebrated many “firsts” without him–birthday, anniversary, Thanksgiving, and soon Christmas.
This first year has not been what I expected, and I recoil at the impulse to make it all “mean something” because if it were up to me, Pete never would have died. What I have learned though, is that there is value in questioning the extent to which our 20’s are for ourselves. If the competitive spirit of college and the pressures implicit in a culture of excess and greed correspond with some truth, then this year has been meaningless for me, but I know better than to believe lies. Hearing my mom’s laughter when I share stories of my 24 year-old romantic and professional misadventures is more precious than any affirmation, promotion, or “like.” This year my meaning is forged on the Saturday nights when we drink wine in our pajamas, and she shares memories of Pete too fragile for the light of day.
When my brother and I listened to my dad’s empathetic and deeply compassionate charge, “Take care of your mother,” we nodded because we understood.
[Photo by Julie Bloom.]